Interview with Zak Rizvi of Kansas

Kansas is, without a doubt, one of the most important flag ships of American progressive music. When singer/keyboardist and composer Steve Walsh decided to step back and retire at the end of 2014, many fans (and the press!) thought it was all over for Kansas. But they were wrong. Former keyboard tech David Manion joined the band and a new frontman was recruited: Ronnie Platt, formerly lead singer for (among others) Shooting Star.

Probably the most important addition was engineer Zak Rizvi. Zak proved himself more than a valuable asset to the band because not only does he play more than a fair bit guitar, he's also a terrific songwriter. Being a big fan of both Rush and Kansas, no wonder his compositions are heavily (or should I say heavenly) influenced by the music of aforementioned bands.

The reborn band made a comeback in 2016 with the highly successful album The Prelude Implicit. A big tour in the US followed when the album was released and the band finally got to play "new stuff" while the breakthrough album Leftoverture (1976) was performed in its entirety. The planned tour in Europe fell apart because of a possible terrorist threat. A big comfort for us Europeans was the release of the double live album Leftoverture Live And Beyond in 2017.

Now, almost fifty years after the band was founded in Topeka (Kansas, USA), we will celebrate the arrival of Kansas' sixteenth studio-album The Absence Of Presence. Keyboarder David Manion left by the end of 2018 and the band enlisted Tom Brislin, not only a well-known and ultimately talented keyboard player but a composer in his own right as well. With this re-enforcement the band recorded The Absence Of Presence with compositions by both Rizvi and Brislin. One of the newbies, Zak Rizvi, reveals how he became a member of Kansas and how the album came to be.

DPRP's Menno von Brucken Fock had a long chat with Zak Rizvi.

Who is Zak Rizvi?

Hi Zak, how are things at your side of the Atlantic? Still healthy?

Oh yeah, I'm good and my band mates too, no problem there! I have to admit this whole Corona-thing begins to become a little scary though. We have many shows planned from May to October, and we are planning to go to Europe afterwards. Considering all the lock-downs we have to wait and see if we are able to perform. When there's a green light, we will be there! Another thing is we have this Jukebox Heroes tour scheduled with Foreigner and Europe during the summer, it would be really disappointing if these shows had to be cancelled due to Covid-19! It's not in our hands anymore, we'll just have to wait and see and accept whatever decisions will be made.

Before we discuss the brilliant new album I'd like to know a bit more about you. You were not born in the USA, right?

No, I'm not. I was born in Pakistan in 1968. My family is Christian and when the political situation in the mid-seventies became quite unstable, my parents decided to emigrate to the US. I was 12 years old at the time. For a number of years I'm living in New Jersey now with my wife and two cats.

You're not related to the controversial politician Khadim Hussain Rizvi are you?

Oh dear God no! Fortunately there is no relation whatsoever with this insane hatred-preacher! I understand your question perfectly, but you should know that Rizvi is a very common last name in Pakistan.

What's your background as a musician? You play guitar, but also keyboards, bass and drums?

I would say all this happened coincidental, it has never been a deliberate plan but rather a natural evolution. I play acoustic guitar since I was nine years old. When our family emigrated to the united States I discovered Country & Western music and a few years later, when I was 15, I got my first electric guitar.

I heard bands like Rush and Kansas on the radio, and I was hooked for good! I took some lessons in high school and so I learned to read notes and all the theoretical aspects of music. I listened endlessly to the "classic" rock bands, foremost to the guitarists of the progressive bands and I taught myself to play their guitar parts. As time went by I developed my skills and got better because what more can you wish for if your teachers are the guitarists of legendary prog-rock bands?

Subsequently, during my education I chose the trombone as a "major" and even before my early twenties I was already composing. At some point I decided I would like to record some of my compositions, so I went to a studio and recorded six songs. That cost me 3000 USD. When your 18 years of age that's a lot of money! That's when I thought there should be another way to reach my goals, so I started saving and bought myself recording equipment. From 4-track recorders it went to 6-track recorders and so on and so forth so eventually I founded my own studio. Around 1990 I became the owner of The Den Recording Studio in New Jersey and the company expanded to four locations. So my main source of income for about 16 years was working as a sound engineer!

What about the combination of playing all these instruments and working as an engineer?

Well, once I got to composing my own music I found out, like many of my musical heroes, that composing on the piano was the way to go, so I had to learn to play the piano. At the time I got totally hooked on music, so I wanted to be part of the production process as well. I wanted to know every detail how to make a good album.

If you want to excel as an engineer than you have to know how instruments work, how the different instruments can sound, their interactions and the role of every individual instrument. Especially in prog you should know how to build in counterpoints, a very important feature in progressive music. In order to master this I had to learn to play bass and drums as well, so I could explain to musicians what I'd like to hear them play. It's extremely helpful if you want to make decent demos! So that's how one thing led to another.

Jeff Glixman

You've worked with Jeff Glixman, the producer of a number of Kansas albums. Is that how you got in contact with the band Kansas?

No, the funny thing is it went the other way around! At some point, if my recollection is sound, around 2000 I got in touch with Phil Ehart through a mutual acquaintance. I started to send him some of my demos. So we had a regular mail contact for some 5 years when I was approached to apply for a job with Jeff Glixman's Starcity Recording Company, a state of the art recording facility with numerous hi-tec tools. I found out that Phil Ehart had recommended me to Jeff! So of course I went there and got hired on the spot. During the six years I had the privilege to work there I got the opportunity to get to know all members of the band Kansas. Eventually these contacts became friendships. I guess both my role as engineer as well as being a "friend of the band", played a role in the decision of the band to invite me to join the band five years ago.

Before you joined Kansas you played in Rush tribute band Power Windows en also in the prog/fusion outfit 4Front. For 4Front you provided all compositions for the three albums (Radio Waves Goodbye, Gravity, Malice In Wonderland). Do you still play with these bands?

I quit playing in Power Windows a number of years ago. Although I'm a huge fan of Rush I have to admit after twelve years of playing songs like Subdivisions I got tired to play them over and over again. 4Front is quite another story. The band members are superb musicians but time has learned that it's extremely difficult to market instrumental music. To be honest with you, we were disappointed and a bit frustrated that we got so little recognition. Still, I'm very proud of those three albums!

So while working with Jeff Glixman you became involved in producing albums from Kansas. You were engineer for the Native Window album. With your band 4Front you opened a number of shows for Kansas. When did the band find out how big an asset you would be to Kansas?

(Chuckles.) That's been a long process. Before I started to work for Jeff Glixman I was asked to come and say hello after Kansas shows, so I got learn all people involved bit by bit. Once I started working for Jeff's company I got a lot more opportunities to get to know the band. I could play guitar, I got involved in the production of the DVD There's Know Place Like Home, and subsequently I got involved in the making of the Native Window album. I knew that the material I had been sending to Phil for a number of years had landed very well so when the band signed with InsideOut they asked me to be the engineer for The Prelude Implicit.

The recording sessions were compromised due to a series of technical problems and obviously I could be held responsible. I was very frustrated and annoyed so when Phil asked me to step outside for a minute I was totally convinced that I would get fired.

Instead, Phil asked me if I would be inclined to join the band. I was utterly speechless because I never saw it coming! Phil immediately noticed I was stupefied. He presumed I needed some time to things over, so he added “Hey Zak, you don't need to answer right away, take some time to consider this offer, okay?” I didn't know how promptly I had to state I really didn't need more than a split second to say “Yes I'm in!” Imagine how often you get the opportunity to join one of your two favourite bands? Such an opportunity is a chance of a lifetime!

Consequences of joining a band like Kansas are that there's no time for other businesses or bands. Playing all these shows and being responsible to come up with new material is a full time job so my production company is dormant at the moment. At the end of the day most of the material I had been sending to Phil since 2000 found its way to The Prelude Implicit some 15 years later.

After Leftoverture Live And Beyond

The live album dates back from the end of 2017, your sixteenth album will be releases in June 2020. What have you guys been doing these last two and a half years?

Well we've been busy touring! No kidding, we never intended to have such a long period between these two studio albums! Since we completed The Prelude Implicit, almost three years went by while we had planned to have the next studio album some eitheen months after The Prelude Implicit. When you're touring 200 days every year, it's hard to find the right state of mind or the time to start composing.

Altogether it took me about a year to complete all compositions for The Prelude Implicit, while I already had 25 minutes of material at my disposal! I usually make fairly detailed demos in order to make it easier for every band member how I would like to have their instruments sound. After I sent my first contribution for the new album to all members of the band back in 2017, things didn't exactly go as planned in 2018. I wouldn't call it a writer's block but fact is that I only had six pieces available until a year ago, so the plans for a successor to The Prelude Implicit had to be postponed. In the current situation I presume we could work a little quicker for the next album but being on the road for such a big part of the year I don't we will be able to come up with the next one within 3 years.

David Manion left Kansas in 2018 after he had been a band member for 6 years. His dream of performing live wasn't all he expected?

To be honest I'm not quite sure why David left. I know he's got a wide range of musical tastes and he was always working on several projects of his own. As a member of a band like Kansas there's just not too much time to be occupied with all kinds of other interests. It might well be David underestimated how much time a band like Kansas consumes and maybe he found out he'd rather spend more time on his own stuff than touring with a band. I must admit I haven't spoken with him since he left the band.

Then his successor, Tom Brislin, how did he end up becoming a member of Kansas?

Again, I have to admit I'm not exactly sure. I believe he was recommended to Phil from our record company InsideOut. Only thing I do know that I got a phone call from Phil saying I would never guess who would replace David: “his name is Tom Brislin and he lives less than 45 minutes from where you live!” Indeed, it was a big surprise for me because I never heard of Tom and he'd never heard of me while we grew up living quite close to one and other! He's a phenomenal keyboard player, he came up with three pieces for The Absence Of Presence, wrote the lyrics for three of my compositions so what more can I say? He surely is a great asset to the band and maybe even more important: he's a super nice guy!

How about the original members of Kansas? Did you, Ronnie or Tom meet Steve Walsh, Dave Hope, Robbie Steinhardt, or Kerry Livgren (who has been working on his magnum opus Cantata for over 20 years now)?

Yeah, we've met them all, except for Dave Hope. I know he is a retired priest. I would really like to meet him, for he must be a very intriguing guy! After The Prelude Implicit came out he wrote me such a nice email stating he liked the new music very much and that he really appreciated the stuff we recorded. Kerry is a very amicable and engaging person, very quiet guy. I really hope he will be able to finish his Cantata, I will be the first one to buy the album when it comes out! Steve and Robbie we met quite a few times, often after a show or playing a song with us. I wouldn't say I know them really well but everyone one is keeping in touch with one and other, they are all great chaps, good comradery!

The Absence Of Presence

Then about the new album. What can you tell us about the "road to The Absence"?

When Tom joined the band things suddenly fell into place and with his contributions we were getting somewhere! The past three years we have been exchanging demos so we all got the chance to comment on them, give suggestions for adaptations and improvements, other arrangements, and we all have been practising. Last year in June we got together and we made considerable progress, finalised all arrangements and assembled all the best ideas for each song. When you're touring as much as we do, the old school method to go into a studio for two whole months is not doable. I have my own studio, so has Tom, so this has made things a lot easier because we could do a lot of the recordings at home, but about half was recorded in a genuine professional studio in Atlanta, where drums and vocals were recorded. During the Christmas-break I made the final mix in my home-studio.

You don't compose a lot of your pieces on guitar but rather on the piano. How do you get the inspiration for all your songs?

Hmm, that's a tough one. I'm not the kind of person to be walking around with a notebook and write down whenever I have some idea in the middle of the night. Usually I isolate myself and focus on composing. Most of the time my inspiration is some fragment from a movie. I'm a huge film-adept and often I get my ideas from a movie. It might be a musical fragment but often it's a catchy scene. Stanley Kubrick is my ultimate hero but also Steven Spielberg, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, and Martin Scorcese I admire greatly. I'm quite sure I've seen all of their films. For the last thirty some years I haven't bought a single record, but I listen to film-scores all of the time. These are my main source of inspiration. People like Maurice Jarre, John Williams, Bernard Harmon, and of course Hans Zimmer are top of the bill.

It surprises me you didn't mention Trevor Rabin because apart from his history with yes he's made himself quite a reputation as soundtrack-composer!

Argh! My second favourite guitarist after Alex Lifeson! I wasn't aware he had become such an accomplished film-score composer! Truth is I don't always pay attention to the credits with every movie I watch. I will be looking out for movies he wrote the soundtracks for! Coming back to your question I'm pretty sure that when I was writing for 4Front, the soundtracks were my major source of inspiration because with instrumental music you have to create your own "movie" while listening to the music.

Rarely, almost never, it's the music that inspires me but just a tempo, a rhythm or just a feeling. I don't know how it works with me but once the spark is there and I've got started, often there's a complete song within a few days. I mainly write on a keyboard although the guitar is absolutely my main instrument. Only when a song has come to fruition completely I grab my guitar to finish the demo.

Many of the Kansas-pieces, including those on the new album are far from 'easy'. Sudden changes in tempo, difficult time signatures, etc. How do you remember all those little details in every song?

(Laughs.) Every single time we work with an orchestra that is the exact question posed to us by every musician in the orchestra because they play every note from a sheet. My answer is: “How many lyrics do you know by head? How many times you're driving your car and you do everything automatically without thinking?” It has become an automatic routine. When you play a song as often as we do, you don't have to think what your next chords are, you just play them automatically. Talking about complexity: I don't think I'll ever be able to write such complex songs as Song For America or Magnum Opus. You know I still struggle with Lightning's Hand on stage every time?

You have done quite a few shows with Tom in the US already playing Point Of Know Return in its entirety. How did they go down?

Just terrific. We have so much fun! Tom is an amazing talent and he is so keen on getting every sound out of his keyboards absolutely perfect, that when you hear him play it's just like you're listening to the original recording. From day one he's totally at ease and believe it or not he is still getting better all the time. I must admit I had a lot more problems learning to play Point Of Know Return than I had with Leftoverture!

Kansas is scheduled to play in the famous Carré theatre in Amsterdam. A very old and renowned venue, but it will be a seated show. I noticed most of your shows are in venues where's there are predominantly seated concerts: deliberate choice?

Oh is that true? I didn't know. I'm not the one who's responsible for this kind of choices nor tour planning. In the US basically all shows are seated concerts, so for us there's nothing new. I understand in Holland most of the shows are not seated? I've only been to Europe once when I was a kid. So I really hope thus tour will go ahead as planned. I'd love to see Europe again!

What can you tell us about the new album, the cover and the songs?

I really have no idea how this cover came about. I only know Phil came up with the title and Tom wrote the lyrics for the title track. You would have to ask them. I cannot tell you much Tom's songs either. Propulsion 1, Memories Down The Line, and The Song The River Sang, except for the ending of the last track. The original plan was to build up to a climax with a lot of soloing and then a long fade until the end. At some point Tom called me up and asked me how I thought about the song ending very abruptly. I answered him I would try and so we did and everyone agreed it was a suitable way to end the album.

The Absence Of Presence, the title track is a story on its own. I started to write this song in a hotel room in Mississippi, but it took me about one and a half year to finish it. As I said Phil suggested this title and Tom did a really great job with the lyrics. Throwing Mountains, the first single, I wrote in the same style as Rhythm Of The Spirit from the previous album, because I was particularly pleased with this track. It has all the characteristics of an epic, except the length. My inspiration for this song came from the movie A Clockwork Orange, maybe you recognize a tiny fragment!

We considered putting out Jets Overhead as a single first because it's a little more radio-friendly, but I'm glad Throwing Mountains got to be the first single because after all we are a progressive rock band! What I can say about Propulsion, this track is a sort of prelude for Memories Down The Line and that Phil really gets to excel in this track. He plays just like Neil Peart with Rush, awesome!

Well that's odd because I would have guessed Memories Down The Line and Circus Of Illusion were written in the same style, while Animals On The Roof pretty much sounds like a track that could have been on Point Of Know Return?

If there is any relation between the tracks you mentioned it would be absolutely coincidental because Memories is a total Tom song. I wrote Circus with lyrics written by Ronnie, so I would say less relation between two songs is hardly thinkable! Jets Overhead was the last song I wrote for this album and Animals On The Roof the one before last. With Animals I tried very hard not to repeat myself because I already wrote a poppy song, I wrote an epic, a ballad, and a typically progressive track.

I think you're right about Animals being in the same style as tracks from Point Of Know Return. Phil came up with a drum beat and I liked it so much it was relatively easy to write to music to. Tom wrote the lyrics.

The origin of Never was a conversation between myself and Phil on the airport when we were discussing the "classic rock ballad". He asked me if I would be able to write such a song. I took the message home and the result has become the song Never! So you see sometimes it's just a remark starting things off for me.

Kansas celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2015 while the biography states the band was founded in 1970. That would mean Kansas should celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2020!

That might be true but as far as I know 1974, the year the debut album was released, has always been considered the starting point of the band, maybe 1970 would be more accurate but so far I haven't heard anything about special shows for our 50th anniversary. Personally I think this jubilee will not be celebrated before 2024!

Hopefully everyone will still be around then and in good health. Thank you for this interview Zak!

You're very welcome, hope to see you in Europe!

Interview by Menno von Brucken Fock.
Photos from Kansas Press Kit, used by kind permission.

Discography

Studio Albums

Kansas (1974)
Song For America (1974)
Masque (1975)
Leftoverture (1976)
Point Of Know Return (1977)
Monolith (1979)
Audiovisions (1980)
Vinyl Confessions (1982)
Drastic Measures (1983)
Power (1986)
In The Spirit Of Things (1988)
Freaks Of Nature (1995)
Always Never The Same (1998)
Somewhere To Elsewhere (2000)
The Prelude Implicit (2016)
The Absence Of Presence (2020)

Live Albums

Two For The Show (1978)
Live At The Whisky (1992)
King Biscuit Flower Hour (1998)
Device-Voice-Drum (2002)
There's Know Place Like Home (2009)
Leftoverture Live & Beyond (2017)

Links

Kansas official website
Kansas YouTube channel
Kansas Facebook page
Kansas on Twitter